Peter Lipsom has written a concise and insightful post at the Science-Based Medicine Blog, entitled The Death and Rebirth of Vitalism. It illustrates why the underlying philosophical position of faith-based medicine is unteneable. Magical entities, such as Ch’i in acupuncture, Innate Intelligence in chiropractic, Water Memory in homeopathy and so on, are required by CAM practices that cannot demonstrate plausible rationales by mainstream scientific methods. This contrasts with the Methodological Naturalism required by science, and the true philosophical naturalism and materialism many scientist accept as the truth about the nature of the universe.
As the comments that follow the post illustrate, pointing out the intellectual bankruptcy of the philosophy behind most CAM approaches can lead to resistence against science-based medicine even among scientists and people not otherwise sympathetic to CAM. This is at least partly because looking at the underlying philosophical and epistemelogical distinctions between science-based and faith-based medicine can lead to awkward questions about other faith-based beliefs.
The human mind is miraculous in its ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, so many scientists can go about their lives practicing methodological naturalism while believing in the eternal soul, reincarnation, or other non-material entities without trouble, so long as the conflict isn’t shoved in their faces. When it is, some attempt to work out acceptable philosophical compromises, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria approach. Others simply choose faith over reason and most simply decide not to dwell on the issue. A few, think and read and meditate deeply about the controversy and elect to try and extend their professional naturalism into all areas of their lives. As far as I’m concerned, these are all fair and legitimate responses to a tough question.
But what is not legitimate is when the challenge to faith in areas outside of science is so threatening that scientists choose to let go of their methodological naturalism and embrace faith-based medicine uncritically. Not everyone cares to conduct difficult and complex investigations into the philosophical underpinnings of theri work or their personal life, and this isn’t by any means a requirement for a productive life in science or medicine. I happen to think it can enrich anyone’s life and work, but that may just be my personal intellectual tastes. However, when it comes to the material world, which includes the bodies and minds of our patients and the tools with which we treat them, there are right and wrong answers. Vitalism may stumble on the right answers by accident from time to time, but science and methodological nauralism consistently get the answers right far more often. To ignore this and cling to faith-based medical practices simply to avoid uncomfortable questions about other deeply held faith-based beliefs is intellectually dishonest and not in the best interests of our patients.